Plenty of players in Dublin aim to turn professional but the prospect of featuring at the UEFA Regions' Cup has given Eastern Region NIR another reason to play for pleasure.
Article top media content
Eastern Region NIR can no longer reach the final of the UEFA Regions' Cup, but that is the only negative the Northern Irish contenders can really take from this tournament. Competing in the finals for the third time, Harry McConkey's side are – as ever – an ocean of positives.
They know their limitations, but they refuse to conform to any kick-and-rush stereotypes; they play good, positive football, and do so with smiles on their faces. "We have a wonderful psyche that we're best as an underdog; that's in our country – in our DNA," McConkey told UEFA.com. "My boys run on adrenalin. They'll play their hearts out – it sounds very emotional, but it's true. They love it – and if you get the results with you, they float."
National amateur coach since 2005, McConkey has drawn his side from the two amateur leagues below the Northern Irish top flight, and – like all of the teams at the finals – none of his squad has ever played professionally. Plenty have had the chance to move up a level, but – like 27-year-old captain Scott McMillan – most have chosen not to. "Play where you're happy and that's where you'll play your best," says the civil servant, who turns out for Belfast side Harland & Wolff Welders FC.
Indeed, the chance of representing their country at the UEFA Regions' Cup has persuaded plenty of members of McConkey's side to reject professional moves. The coach said: "People are getting offered money to play, but they are saying – 'but then I couldn't play in the Regions' Cup.' I have the other problem of trying to convince them to leave me!"
It is understandably why they would want to stay under the 55-year-old's command; team discipline is high in the Eastern Region IRL camp – McMillan says there €5 fines are levied for turning up late for team meals, losing items of kit, and even hitting the ball over the fence in shooting practice – but the way McConkey encourages his side from the sidelines, praising his players, urging them on, and never losing his temper, is testament to a soft power.
The coach reckons his understanding of his players owes much to his job as a special needs teacher. "Those kids teach me how to press buttons with people, because their emotions are heightened," he says. "When they are exploding, you have to find out why. With the players, I don't react to things that go wrong; before I react, I always say, 'let me hear what the story is.' And that helps you as a manager."
A 2-2 draw with Württemberg and a 3-1 loss to Zagreb in Group B means bronze medals are the best his side can hope for, but the experience of playing here in Dublin is reward enough for McMillan. "The pitches are in good condition, the teams are well drilled, and obviously we know it's not the senior team, but it's a massive honour to be chosen to represent your country."
The big Group B game on Wednesday is between Württemberg and Zagreb at Home Farm – McConkey reckons the Croatian side will have the edge; McMillan reckons the Germans are stronger – but Eastern Region NIR's game against Dolnośląski is no dead rubber. The right combination of results could yet send Eastern Region NIR back home with bronze medals. Another massive positive, as if one were needed.
Tweet your support Europe's top amateurs in Dublin using #RegionsCup